Who will carry the foreign-policy ball at the White House -- chief of staff Donald Regan or the President's new national-security adviser? That is the question that titillates Washington politicians and pundits in the wake of the appointment of Vice-Adm. John M. Poindexter to succeed Robert C. McFarlane.
Admiral Poindexter, Mr. McFarlane's former deputy, is widely respected as a brilliant naval officer and quintessential staff man. He is praised both outside government and at the White House for his intelligence, hard work, and skills as a bureaucratic operator.
White House officials stress the role he played in fashioning and managing the administration's plan to intercept the Egyptian airliner carrying four Palestinians accused of hijacking the Achille Lauro cruise ship.
``He was calm, cool, and collected,'' says a White House aide. ``He's an astute interagency coordinator and superb at crisis management.''
Comments a recently retired admiral: ``He's a very good guy for this job because he has the right profile -- he'll be bringing together the State and Defense Departments rather than being a power in his own right.''
Some diplomatic observers, however, voice concern that Poindexter will not have enough influence to mediate interbureaucratic quarrels -- something even McFarlane had trouble doing -- and does not have sufficient depth of experience in foreign policy. The dominant foreign-policy role at the White House is therefore seen as likely to pass to Mr. Regan.
``Poindexter will be competent but have a low profile,'' says Philip Odeen, a former National Security Council (NSC) staff aide. ``As a military officer and career-type guy he's not going to be a real power in foreign-policy issues. He's superb in military-type operations but in times of crisis it's nice to have someone with in-depth experience in foreign-policy issues and more background knowledge.''
Poindexter graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1958, the first in his class and brigade commander of his class. He earned a doctorate in nuclear physics in 1964 from the California Institute of Technology. His naval career includes command of a guided-missile cruiser and destroyer squadron. From 1971 to 1978 he was an aide to Navy secretaries and the chief of naval operations and from 1978 to 1981 deputy chief of naval education and training. Poindexter has been on the National Security Council sta ff since 1981, becoming deputy to McFarlane in 1983. He was made a vice-admiral in May.
Unlike his predecessor, Poindexter has avoided contact with the press and is therefore little known by journalists. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill also speak of him as an ``unknown quantity.'' One measure of his competence as national security adviser will be how well he communicates with legislators. McFarlane's departure is regretted because of his sensitivity to Congress and his good working relationship with key congressional committees.
Some observers say Poindexter's foreign-policy experience is underestimated. Given a short stint at the State Department and his exposure to foreign-policy decisionmaking at the White House, they say, the new NSC chief is bound to have a broader knowledge and approach than his military background suggests.